By Marijke Vroomen-Durning, RN | Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Heart disease is not exclusive to men, and more than ever before, heart organizations are making sure women get that message.
Depending on where you live, you may have noticed more promotions targeting women about heart disease awareness. Posters, television ads, even special heart disease awareness days, have been created to help remind women about this serious condition and what can be done to prevent it.
Why the focus on women? There’s a common misconception that heart disease only affects men, but statistics show that this is just not true. In the United States, 1 in 2.4 women die of heart disease compared to one in 29 who die of breast cancer. Still, breast cancer remains a more widely feared and publicized health issue in the United States. This year alone, 9,000 U.S. women under the age of 45 will have heart attacks. Without better awareness of prevention measures, these numbers will continue to rise.
More Women Die of Heart Attack Than Men
Although women don’t have heart attacks more often than men, said Jennifer Lawton, MD, associate professor of surgery in the division of cardiothoracic surgery at University of Washington in St. Louis, “More women die from [heart] disease than men, and that has been true since 1984.” Unlike men, however, women are usually over 55 years old when heart disease begins to develop, while men may be as young as 45 years old.
Women’s Heart Disease Risk
The risks for heart disease are generally the same for both men and women. They include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, smoking, poor diet, and lack of physical exercise. However, with women, there is one extra risk factor, which may explain why women are more likely to suffer a heart attack once they reach the age of 55. At this point, the levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol rise in women, becoming higher on average than in men.
Among all women, women of color have the highest risk and rates of heart disease.
Heart Disease Awareness
In 1997, in response to the lack of awareness among women regarding heart disease, the American Heart Association began promoting awareness of women’s heart health. Unfortunately, although the promotions helped more women become knowledgeable about heart disease, a lot of women who haven’t yet been reached.
Much like the pink ribbon has become symbolic of breast cancer, the red dress is the symbol of heart disease and women. It was introduced as a symbol in 2002, when the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) along with other organizations, began sponsoring a national campaign called The Heart Truth.
Although The Heart Truth campaign is geared towards women between the ages of 40 and 60, the sponsors are trying to reach younger women as well. Dr. Lawton said that although heart disease is less common in younger women, they are at risk too, and there’s more they can do earlier in life to prevent later heart health issues. She once performed a bypass surgery on a woman who was only 32 years old, she said.
In 2005, in order to target women of color, the NHLBI and its community partners, The Links, Inc., National Latina Health Network, and National Coalition of Pastors’ Spouses, developed The Heart Truth Women of Color initiative. The goal of this program is to reach out to women of color, making them aware of their risks through workshops and screening programs.
The American Heart Association is also doing its part to raise awareness. Among their many programs is one called Go Red For Women, where you can register to receive a Go Red For Women red dress lapel pin and get information on how to prevent heart disease. By getting women to wear these pins, the AHA is hoping to raise more awareness about the effects of heart disease on women.
You can play a part in raising awareness about heart disease among women, too. Pass this information on to your female friends, family members, and coworkers: Protecting your health is not just about preventing breast and gynecological cancers, but should also include knowing about, understanding, and preventing heart disease.